The Common Core reading foundational standard (RF3) requires students to recognize words by sight. The translation of this standard has been that students need direct instruction on the Dolch sight words. In response, many districts are setting sight word goals at higher and higher levels. The most common measure is the Dolch 220 sight word list. Teachers everywhere have long checklists and can categorize who knows which sight words with ease. The goal? Get to 220 and the student can read! There is a flaw in this logic. As a researcher, I call it a flaw of causality. Two correlates don’t automatically indicate a directly causal relationship. In layman’s terms, it goes like this:
If a student knows 220 Dolch sight words does that automatically mean that they can read? No.
If a student can read does that mean that they know 220 Dolch sight words? Yes.
Before you even begin thinking about the Dolch sight words, you should understand how they came about.
This list was created by Dr. Edward Dolch. He is also the architect of the method reading that advocates whole word reading instead of phonics. His list was published in the 1940s and was based on what he noticed as the most common words in children’s literature from the 1930s (when his actual research was done). Aside from the fact that children’s literature is radically different in the 80+ years since he did this research, the list includes many words that are decodable phonetically. This means that they feature common and implicit phonics patterns. If you know sounds, you can read half of these words with no problem. Additionally the list ignores all nouns. There is an entirely separate list of nouns that feature words like, “kitty”. I guess that was a biggie in the 30s.
Logic says that we should teach our kids to read, with an awareness of sight words, not the other way around. Focusing instruction on sight word memory is not going to create readers. Focusing on solid reading instruction will create students who know sight words. If you have a county or school mandate about sight words, you don’t need to just assess students on sight words, you need to make sure that you are using strategies that create readers!
Non-Instructional Strategies: Is this what you are using for instruction?
- Powerpoints with the words flashing
- Reading sight words from the walls
If your central instructional strategy comes from the three above, stop, and stop now. These are assessments, not instructional strategies. Even if students can recognize the word with automaticity, it means nothing if they have not learned the word in context. Even if students see them later in a book, this is isolation and not creating readers. This creates a dejected students who knows that the number of sight words they know defines if they are good or bad readers. That is as assessment of learning. When is the learning part going to happen? Ready to think about real strategies for your class? Learn my three favorite sight word strategies.